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Author: Hedders (Page 1 of 8)

Auri II – Those We Don’t Speak Of

I first heard of Auri back in 2020, during the tedium of the first lockdown. If you read this blog (yes, both of you) you’ll know I’m a massive fan of Nightwish, and of course Auri has two members in common with that band, so I was already pre-disposed to be interested. I bought the first album.

And make no mistake, Auri I is a really good album, with a couple of utterly transcendent tracks on it. But it seemed like they were still figuring out what Auri was; as an album it feels slightly inchoate and (oddly) slightly too long.

This time out, though, there is no uncertainty. Johanna, Troy and Tuomas know exactly what Auri is and precisely what they’re doing, and they articulate it with a clear, consistent voice over ten perfectly crafted, transportingly beautiful, constantly surprising songs.

Musically, it is genuinely hard to describe. The foundation is folk, certainly, with strong prog elements, but equally there’s chamber music, film scores (the album title is a clear reference to M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village) and even some bits that verge on latter-day Nine Inch Nails. Traditional string and wind instruments sit side-by-side with electronics. It’s tuneful and you can sing along to the songs (not well, at least in my case, but if it’s just you in the car and nobody’s listening …), but they don’t follow conventional structures and no sooner have you got the hang of a song than it immediately veers off to somewhere completely different. Regardless, it is certainly one thing: absolutely beautiful. Hear for yourself:

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Honestly, since it arrived on Monday I’ve rapidly become obsessed with this record. It’s probably displaced The Anchoress’ remarkable The Art of Losing as my album of the year. Go buy it, then put on your headphones, go for a walk in the woods and just lose yourself in its beauty. You won’t regret it.

Cambridge Audio Melomania 1+

I finally gave up and bought some wireless earbuds. Yes, I know, they’re always a compromise. But honestly convenience isn’t to be sniffed at, especially when your primary use case is yomping through fields after a ridiculously energetic dog.

After a bit of looking around I settled on the Cambridge Audio Melomania 1+ buds, largely on the strength of their five star review in What HiFi.

I’ve had them a few months now, and while they’re good, I’m not completely sure I agree with What HiFi’s hagiography.

First, the fit is fiddly, even with the plethora of different tips provided. In the end I found the memory foam tips gave the best results for my ears, but even with those achieving a decent seal requires a good amount of twisting and jiggling each time.

Second, the tech is finnicky. I had to RMA my first set when they just completely refused to charge any more, and a recent firmware update only managed to update one of the two buds before crapping out, resulting in a support ticket and a significant amount of faffing around.

Third, the sound is perhaps a little on the bright side, tending occasionally towards harshness. That can be mitigated with the EQ in the provided app, but they don’t sound as big or spacious as my wife’s (admittedly much more expensive) Apple Airpods.

Still, for 120 quid, they’re very respectable indeed, and I don’t regret buying them.

Nightwish at The Islanders Arms

Plenty of bands have found themselves becalmed by the pandemic. A few have even had the infuriating experience of putting out a new album right as the pandemic hit, and then not being able to tour it.

I’m sure most bands in that situation would have thought about doing some sort of livestream instead. Find a nice little studio somewhere, break out the acoustic guitars, do an intimate little show and shove it out on Twitch.

Not Nightwish though. They’re all about spectacle, bombast, and unironic melodrama with the emotional dial turned up to 11. They don’t give a stuff about whether or not you think they’re cool. They just want to make you sing, make you jump around, and then make you bawl your eyes out, and they always go all out to do just that. So when they do an Internet livestream, they break out the green screens and do a full electric show from a fantastically detailed CGI tavern teetering on the edge of a waterfall. Because of course.

If all this sounds a bit Spinal Tap, then you’re starting to get it: the whole point of Nightwish is that there exists a thin line between being genuinely dramatic and spectacular on the one hand, and being Derek Smalls stuck in the pod on the other, and Nightwish have spent their whole 25 year career dancing along that line, singing as they go.

Which brings us to this show (two shows really; there’s one for the Americans tomorrow kicking off at about midnight). The first thing that struck me, after the fact that the tech works (itself quite a feat), was how much they were obviously enjoying themselves. I mean, seriously. They’re a metal band, they’ve just had a year and a half of being stuck sitting at home, they’ve just lost Marko, their bass player and backing vocalist of 20 years, to a combination of mental illness, exhaustion and anger at the state of the music industry. They really have no right to be this damned happy. There they are, playing on their own in front of a green screen, with no audience to feed off of, and they are having a great time.

The second thing that struck me, about three songs in, was this: A band in this situation, live streaming with untried technology, sticking their necks out with a big CGI show, breaking in a new member (Wintersun bass player Jukka Koskinen) and giving an existing member an awful lot more work to do (Troy Donockley now takes on all backing vocal duties), if they were smart, would play it safe with the setlist. Stick to the hits, don’t do anything too technical, don’t go out on a limb, make sure it works first and foremost. But that isn’t the Nightwish way. Instead, we get a drastic (and brilliant) re-arrangement of Planet Hell, a song from 2004’s Once which relies heavily on Marko’s vocals, with Floor basically doing both male and female vocal parts, while the CGI waterfall turns to flame and lava and everything goes very, very extra.

And then, there’s Shoemaker, their paen to the planetary geologist whose ashes were scattered on the moon, which even they said probably wasn’t feasible to play live. Except they do. All of it. Even the magnificent operatic laudato which ends it. It was a huge risk. They pulled it off, perfectly.

All of which brings us to lead singer Floor Jansen. Nightwish songs are technical and difficult at the best of times; even relatively simple songs like Nemo and Élan demand power, stylistic versatility, agility across the full scale, and really disciplined breath control. Here, Floor was faced with the added complications of having to sing new arrangements in which she also covers most of Marko’s parts, and bearing the main burden of fronting the show and connecting emotionally with an audience at the other end of the Internet. That’s a hell of an ask.

To say that she rose to the occasion is an understatement. With this performance Floor has, I think, cemented her reputation as one of the all-time great rock singers. Technically she threw everything she has at it, breathtaking high note after breathtaking high note, with more power and sheer emotion than I think I’ve ever heard her bring to bear. But, more than just her singing (and I know the word “just” is doing a lot of work there), it was her performance that really blew me away. It was riveting, in the way that Freddie Mercury at Live Aid, Bono at Red Rocks, Roger Dalterey at the Isle of Wight Festival were riveting. But playing for people she could not see or hear. It was utterly exhilerating. If Wacken 2013 was the moment that Floor planted her flag in the ground, then The Islanders Arms 2021 was her coronation. Rock, thy name is Jansen.

Yes, I know I’m gushing. But really, Nightwish deserve it. Even the glitches were charming: Troy got so wrapped up in a pipes solo that he missed a vocal cue completely; at one point Tuomas’ keyboards suddenly became inexplicably massively louder than everything else; Floor’s earpiece kept falling out. The band laughed it off, and so did we.

This whole undertaking was a huge risk for Nightwish, both financially (it must have been ruinously expensive) and creatively. It could have backfired or gone horribly wrong. It didn’t. They’re one of the best live bands in the world, in any genre, and with this show they’ve raised the bar again.

Literally nothing to say

Stephen Fry once wrote a newspaper column in which he elegaicly and at some length explained that he had nothing to say. His notes about it in his collected essays said something to the effect that a columnist can get away with a column like that once.

Well, here’s mine. I’m not claiming to be any kind of writer or columnist or what-have-you. But I haven’t written anything at all on this blog since February, and the reason has been simple; I’ve nothing to say. Whether it’s the isolation of never-ending lockdown, or the every-day-is-exactly-the-same tedium of working from home, or what, I have no idea. But the fact is I’m bored senseless and one of the effects of that is that I have no conversation, no ideas, not even really any interests, honestly. I just sort of plod through the day.

So, yeah. Nothing to say, and I’ve said it.

Might delete this blog to be honest, it serves no real useful purpose.

Spirits In The Forest

Depeche Mode are one of my very favourite bands. I love their music. But they need to stop now, and their film “Spirits In The Forest” perfectly illustrates why.

The premise, I love. A spiritual sequel to “101”, following a bunch of fans’ journeys and stories, of what the band has meant to them through their lives, intercut with concert footage. The divorced dad in Bogotá who reconnected with his kids through making YouTube videos of them doing DM covers. The young girl from Ulan Bator who lives with her grandmother. The gentle, soft-spoken Romanian who learned English so he could translate DM’s lyrics for his friends. The cancer survivor. It’s lovely, really it is.

The trouble is the concert footage. And lord, it pains me to say this, even to admit this to myself, but here it is. DM were, once upon a time, one of the greatest live bands in the world. Just watch “Devotional” if you don’t believe me. It’s epic. But, now, in 2021, they’re just plain not. Dave’s voice is shot. He knows it, too, retreating into Vic Reeves club singer crooning and clowning around as a way to avoid having to actually hit the damn notes. What’s almost worse is that Martin isn’t far behind him: that legendarily huge, rich tenor that created those magnificent harmonies is sounding increasingly reedy and cracked.

Singers’ voices do change as they age. That’s a well-understood phenomenon. Sometimes they find a way to master that change, and become – if anything – better than they were in the first flush of youth. Bruce Dickinson’s a great example of that, as are Floor Jansen and James Hetfield (yes, they’re all metal singers but the point stands – and metal singers over 35 or so have to develop really good technique if they’re not going to blow out their vocal chords).

The first time Dave Gahan’s voice changed, he got on top of it and made it work. The roaring, stadium-filling baritone from Songs of Faith and Devotion gave way to the creeping snarl that percolates through Ultra, Exciter and Playing the Angel. It let him do some of the best work of his career, in the form of the Soulsavers record. Thing is, it’s changed again, and this time he hasn’t got a hold on it.

That is, perhaps, understandable. He’s nearly 60. And Christ, the man performs. He’s all over that stage like Mick Jagger with a flea up his bum. But Depeche songs aren’t about prancing and posing. They’re songs. They’re all about the voices. They need that plaintive tunefulness that makes Depeche … well, that makes them Depeche. They need Dave and Martin both to be absolutely on top of their game vocally.

And, in this film, they aren’t. So much so that I, a lifelong fan, can’t bring myself to watch it again. It’s the first DM concert film I’ve watched where I haven’t wanted to be there.

Perhaps, really, they just need to stop. They have one hell of a body of work behind them. But enough is enough. I for one don’t want to have to watch them fading away like this.

Fiio M3K

I’m that guy who still buys CDs. I have hundreds of the things. Why? Well, there are all sorts of reasons; I like physical media, I like album artwork, I often listen to music in places that don’t have a great Internet connection, and I also have a few issues with the way some of the streaming services treat recording artists.

Equally, I do like to have a good chunk of my music to go, and I’ve generally done that with high capacity digital music players. For years, I’ve been using an iPod Classic 160Gb with the Rockbox firmware, and it’s been great, but the iPod hard drive has finally croaked and right now I can’t be stuffed to start spudging around to open it up and try to replace it. Apple didn’t do repairable, even back then. So, I needed a replacement and what with just having paid for Christmas and a new washing machine (don’t ask), I didn’t really want to spend a fortune.

Which is how I lighted on the Fiio M3K. Fiio have been making a bit of a name for themselves with high quality digital audio players aimed at the audiophile, and the M3K is their entry-level model coming in at just 60 quid. It had good reviews, from hifi websites as well as from Amazon, and all in all it seemed like a decent machine for the price point.

It arrived today, and these are my first impressions of it.

The Fiio M3K. Hand for scale.

As you can see from the picture above, it is pleasingly tiny. Is it any good though?

Good things first. The screen is small but decently bright and perfectly readable. It feels solid and well-made, the silicone case it comes with feels good and the side buttons are pretty intuitive and responsive.

Most importantly, it sounds really good. FLAC audio sounds spacious, defined, clear, and alive. There are plenty of EQ settings and the like, but after testing with everything from Tom Waits to Nine Inch Nails (Reznor and Ross’ complex soundscapes and high dynamics are always a good workout for a music player) I haven’t felt the need to change anything from the default. Paired with my beloved Grado Labs backless headphones it sounds sublime, much better than the iPod Classic ever did.

There are some niggles and compromises. First off, this is a 60 quid device, and most of that budget has gone on the high quality DAC. Intensive operations like rescanning the library when you add new files are not quick, and you can’t use the player while it’s doing it. In fact, I had some issues with it locking up doing the initial scan of around 130GB of music. Turned out it didn’t like the dodgy knock-off MicroSD card I was using. Switching to a quality Sandisk card made the problem go away. Not an uncommon issue, but one to be aware of.

The touch controls on the front are OK, but they’re not as good as the iPod Classic’s peerless jogwheel, and in fact I’ve found a few instances where it wouldn’t respond to my fingers. Again, this is a 60 quid device, so comparing it to a device that cost four times that ten years ago probably isn’t fair, but something to work on for future revisions perhaps.

Overall, I’m really happy with it. I have Auri’s gorgeous Night 13 playing on it as I type this, and I’m spotting details I’ve never noticed before, even on the same headphones. A device this cheap shouldn’t sound this good. For the money, you can’t go wrong, really.

The Anchoress is back

Well now. I did wonder when we would be hearing from The Anchoress again. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t totally on board with In Memory Of My Feelings, her collaboration with Bernard Butler (which is odd, because it seems like a match made in heaven), but she’s been slowly releasing tracks from her forthcoming second solo album under the Anchoress moniker and … well. Well now.

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See for yourself. This is really rather glorious, isn’t it?

The Sinden Lightgun

One of the little-mentioned casualties of the move away from CRT technology for our TVs and computer monitors was light gun games. As everyone who lives in the gaming world knows, light guns don’t work on modern TVs. They need to be able to track the CRT beam; no CRT beam, no workee.

Nintendo’s Wii had a sort of solution with its Wiimote, which used an IR sensor bar, but as anyone who has tried to play House of the Dead on the Wii can attest, it’s not what you’d call accurate.

Enter Andy Sinden, inventor of the Sinden Lightgun, a light gun that works with modern TVs and is way more accurate than IR-based solutions like the Wiimote. As I understand it, it’s basically a camera in a gun shell that recognises the on-screen border created by the driver software and uses that to work out where you’re pointing it, with exceptional accuracy. As far as Windows and Linux is concerned it appears to be a mouse, which means that it can be used with a wide variety of games, platforms and environments. So, you can run your old arcade gun games in MAME, and play them on your PC or Raspberry Pi or whatever, on your modern TV, with a proper gun.

I was one of the backers of the original Kickstarter campaign, and so I received my Sinden Lightgun yesterday. I think general release / order fulfilment is January or so.

The hardware itself is reminiscent of the Saturn light gun. It’s not what you would call a premium product – it is injection moulded rather than 3D printed, but the plastics have a slightly scuffed and overly shiny look to them reminiscent of a cheaper child’s toy. For the money, I would have liked a slightly more high-end finish and a bit more weight to it, although that probably wasn’t practicable given the small production run for the Kickstarter. It doesn’t feel fragile though, the trigger is microswitched (a nice touch) and the other buttons are well-placed and feel decent enough. Crucially, the USB lead is very long (~5m I think?), so you can stand well back from larger screens. So … not blown away like I was by the Spectrum Next, but not bad at all.

The software is not, in its current form, going to win any UI design awards. It’s in beta still, so that’s not necessarily unexpected, but it is … basic, shall we say. No doubt that will improve with time. It is after all just a beta.

The software has also proven somewhat unstable for me – it frequently throws exceptions when I launch it. Again, it’s a beta, and Andy is clearly a capable guy, so no doubt that will improve.

The biggest issue I faced was setting up MAME, because I’m really not familiar with it and the learning curve is, shall we say, steep. Honestly though I didn’t make my life easier by not reading the Sinden Lightgun wiki properly.

All of these niggles fell away pretty quickly once I got it working though. Damn, this thing is fun. I’d forgotten just how much I miss light gun games. Time Crisis, Terminator 2, Operation Wolf, Lethal Enforcers … ahhhh. They all work great.

Gun game nirvana

So … yeah. It’s not quite ready for prime time, perhaps. But the core technology is sound and works well. I can certainly see it being supported out of the box by MAME, RetroArch and so on in the future, and if it catches on then, who knows? We could be looking at a whole new generation of light gun games. Imagine a new House of the Dead or Virtua Cop game using the latest Unreal Engine. Now you’re talking.

OSSC

My trusty old Trinitron CRT finally croaked. It was a lovely screen, perfect for the old computers and consoles that I like to mess around with when I’m not working or wrangling children. But its time had come.

Frankly, now that I’m working at home, I can’t really spare the desk real estate that a CRT needs either.

So, a modern screen is needed. Trouble is, they really don’t work well with old machines. Old machines tend to output video at 240p, 480i, or 480p tops. Even if your TV has a SCART connector, it probably won’t handle those sorts of low resolutions well. It will try to upscale them, but TV upscalers are made for movies and so the result is a blurry, laggy mess.

The OSSC. Not pretty, but very functional.

This is where the “Open Source Scan Converter”, or OSSC, comes in. It’s a nifty little device that takes your old console or computer’s SD RGB output and “line doubles” it up to 720p or even 1080p.

The results are spectacular. The “modern” screen in my home office is an El Cheapo Phillips 24″ flat panel. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fine. But it can’t cope with anything that isn’t HDMI and high def.

With the OSSC hooked up, all my consoles look fabulous. Razor sharp images. No artefacting or noise. No blur. No “smoothing”. No lag whatsoever. It’s fabulous. I don’t have the ability to take screenshots of it, which is a shame because it really needs to be seen.

There are a few issues. My Amiga 1200 does some weird things in Workbench. My Atari ST produces a perfect image, but there’s no audio for some reason.

But those are teething troubles at best. The OSSC is incredibly configurable and I’m sure there’s a setting somewhere that will address these problems. (EDIT: Both of these issues went away with the 0.86 OSSC firmware update.)

Fundamentally, this is an amazing device which bridges the gap between retro consoles and new TVs beautifully. I’m very pleased with it.

Privilege

I have a range of mental health problems. Depression, its bosom buddy anxiety, and pretty serious attachment issues have been a part of who I am for as long as I can remember.

Why? Well, I went to boarding school. Yes, I’m posh – well, sort of. I’m an FCO kid. I was privately educated, at enormous expense. And it destroyed me.

Yes, I’m aware of my “privilege”. And it has opened doors. I’d be lying if I pretended otherwise. But consider this.

Imagine a rather shy and introverted little boy, aged 8 or 9, who has overnight and for reasons he doesn’t really understand lost his home, his family, his personal space and privacy, his freedom, his safety and his access to anyone who cares about him or any sort of affection or comfort or solace whatsoever, all in one fell swoop.

Imagine that he then finds himself trapped in a relentlessly hostile environment where nobody is on his side and nowhere is safe, and where there’s a good chance that at any moment someone will beat the shit out of him because they feel like it or because it’s funny.

Imagine that is then his life until adulthood.

Honestly, it’s like a bereavement. Not all kids survive it – anecdotally, most boarding schools see at least one suicide attempt every year. Certainly, my own did. Some succeed. The ones who don’t are quietly removed. Either way, the whole thing is brushed over.

If you do survive, then you emerge a changed person. Tough, self-reliant and self-sufficient, certainly. The hoary old cliché about the regime being “character forming” is certainly true, as far as it goes. But you are also completely closed, defensive and wholly incapable of empathy or normal human relationships. You don’t love anyone or anything. You can’t. To survive that decade, you had to kill the part of you that feels, or bury it so deep that nobody else can get to it.

This is how the (in)famous English “sang froid” / “stiff upper lip” is created. By systematically brutalising and traumatising small children.

I survived, but the long-term effects on me have been pretty profound. It’s controlled and stabilised with medication; a cocktail of Sertraline and Mirtazapine seems to keep me relatively uninterested in offing myself, but even with the meds, I struggle.

Now, recall that the people who are the product of this system, these broken, stunted souls … they run the country.

Explains a lot, doesn’t it?

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